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THE COLONIAL POST-OFFICE 

The first arrangements of a postal character introduced into 
the North American colonies were made for the purpose of amend- 
ing defects in private arrangements which had been in operation 
since the foundation of the colonies. From the time the Dutch 
settled on Manhattan Island and on the shores of the Hudson, and 
the English in Virginia and Massachusetts, continuous though ir- 
regular communication was maintained with the respective mother- 
countries by means of trading vessels. On the European side the 
arrangements were subject to few inconveniences. If the sailing- 
masters, on their arrival in Holland and England, were regardful 
of their trust, they would see that the letters placed in their mail- 
bags by the colonists were posted at the nearest post-office, and 
the postal systems in those countries could be depended on to do the 
rest. With the colonists the situation was less happy. As there 
were no post-offices, those sending or expecting letters had to 
depend on their own exertions or on the precarious goodwill of 
friends for information as to the time of arrival or departure of 
vessels, and for the necessary visits to the vessels. The first colony 
to apply a remedy for these inconveniences was Massachusetts 
Bay. On November 5, 1639, the general court of that colony 
issued an ordinance 1 directing that all letters arriving at Boston 
from beyond seas should be taken to Richard Fairbank's tavern. 
Fairbank's tavern seems to have been something of a public in- 
stitution. Returns to the surveyor-general were made there and 
committees on trade and on other public matters held their meetings 
in its rooms. Fairbank undertook to make a proper delivery of 
the letters received by him, and he was authorized to take- as com- 
pensation a penny for each letter so delivered. But the ordinance 
went further and in a qualified way conferred on him the other 
functions of a postmaster. He was licensed to accept letters from 
citizens for despatch across the sea, but the court were not minded 
to bestow a monopoly on him. The ordinance laid it down plainly 
that " no man shall be compelled to bring his letters thither except 
he please". 

The Dutch West India Company, which governed New Nether- 
land, made somewhat similar provision against the delays and 
failures in the delivery of its correspondence. In a letter 2 to the 

1 Collections of the Mass. Hist. Soc, third series, VII. 48. 

2 New York Colonial Documents, XIV. 186. 

258 



The Colonial Post- Office 259 

director-general of New Netherland written on August 6, 1652, the 
directors in Amsterdam state that, having observed that "private 
parties give their letters to this or that sailor or free merchant, 
which letters to their great disadvantage are often lost through 
neglect, remaining forgotten in the boxes or because one or the 
other removes to another place", they have had a box set up at 
their place of meeting in which all letters may be deposited for 
despatch by the first ship sailing; and they advise that the same 
measure be taken in New Amsterdam. In 1659 they became 
peremptory, and ordered that any sailing-master found carrying 
letters otherwise than in the sealed bag made up for him at the 
company's offices, should be subject to a fine of one hundred guilders 
for each offense. 3 

The lack of common interests among the colonial groups ac- 
counts for the absence of an inland postal system, but there were 
two occasions before the issue of the Neale patent when the pres- 
ence of a common danger drew the groups together, and each time 
the question of communications among them by regular posts was 
agitated. On the outbreak of the war between the English and 
their maritime rivals, the Dutch, in 1672, Governor Lovelace, at 
the direction of the king, set on foot inquiries as to what could be 
done towards establishing a regular postal service throughout the 
colonies. He arranged for a monthly courier service between New 
York and Boston. 4 There was no road between the two places 
and Governor Winthrop was asked to provide an expert woodsman, 
who might guide the courier by the easiest road. The courier was 
directed to blaze the route, and it was hoped that a good road might 
be made over it. The courier had made only a few trips when 
New York was captured by a Dutch fleet. The town was re- 
stored to the English in 1674 but, with the disappearance of the 
danger, the service was dropped. 

The other occasion was in 1684, when the pressure of the 
French and their Indian allies brought together all the colonies into 
a conference at Albany, at which the Iroquois took part. Colonel 
Dongan, governor of New York, threw out the proposition to estab- 
lish a line of post-houses along the coast from the Acadian bound- 
ary to Carolina. The king was much pleased with the scheme, 
and directed Dongan to farm out the enterprise to some capable 
contractor. 5 In March, 1685, he had an ordinance adopted in the 

3 Ibid., p. 446. 

* Coll., Mass. Hist. Soc, fifth series, IX. 83-84. 

5 Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, America and West Indies, 1681-1685, 
no. 1848. 



260 William Smith 

council of New York, 6 providing for a post-office through the 
colonies, and fixing the charges for the conveyance of letters at 
threepence for each one hundred miles of carriage. Dongan's juris- 
diction did not however extend beyond the colony of New York 
and the records of the other colonies are silent on the subject. No 
evidence has been discovered to show that the extensive scheme 
contemplated was carried into effect but it is tolerably certain that a 
regular service was in operation between New York and Boston. 
The narrative of the grievances, against the tyrannical misrule of 
the usurper Leisler contains a statement that on January 16, 1690, 
the public post on his way to Boston was detained by a warrant from 
Leisler and his letters confiscated, and the terms of the statement 
make it clear that the post was a regular institution. 7 

In July, 1683, a weekly post was established in Pennsylvania. 
Letters were carried from Philadelphia to the Falls of Delaware for 
threepence ; to Chester for twopence ; to New Castle for f ourpence ; 
and to Maryland for sixpence. 8 

As part of the scheme of James II. for the confederation of the 
New England states under a royal governor, a postmaster was 
appointed for the united colonies. The choice fell upon Edward 
Randolph, who had just previously been selected as secretary and 
registrar of the new province. The appointment was dated No- 
vember 23, 1685. 6 He seems to have performed the duties of his 
office 10 until the fall of the Andros government, which followed 
closely upon the deposition of James II. in 1689. 

Until this time, then, the post-office would be classed generally 
among the merely temporary conveniences of the state, and not 
among its permanent institutions. It was William III. who estab- 
lished the first postal system in the colonies. When he had be- 
come firmly seated on his throne and had an opportunity to look 
about, the affairs of the North American colonies engaged his at- 
tention. They had been growing rapidly, and at the end of the 
period of the Revolution in England the population was estimated 
at about 200,000. The greater part of the increase was in the 
middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, though 
the colonies of Maryland and Virginia showed considerable gain, 

8 Quoted by Miss M. E. Woolley in Early History of the Colonial Post- 
Office, as from AT. Y. Col. Docs., vol. III. Miss Woolley's essay is in the Pub- 
lications of the Rhode Island Hist. Soc, 1894, and is reprinted in the Papers 
from the Historical Seminary of Brown University (ed. J. Franklin Jameson). 

7JV". Y. Col. Docs., III. 682. 

8 Winsor, Narr. and Crit. Hist, of Am., III. 492. 

9 Edward Randolph, I. 270 {Publications of the Prince Society). 

10 " Our letters that come by post now pass through hands of Councillour 
Randolph ", Samuel Sewall to Thomas Glover, July 15, 1686. Sewall Letter- 
Books, I. 21. 



The Colonial Post- Office 261 

and a beginning was made in the settlement of the Carolinas. The 
king resolved to have postal communication between Massachusetts, 
New York, and Pennsylvania. In 1691 he granted a patent 11 to 
the Master of the Mint, Thomas Neale, empowering him to establish 
a postal service between these colonies, and to open post-offices in 
the chief places. Neale seems to have been one of those parasitic 
creatures who manage to bask in court favor and to batten upon 
sinecures. He was at one time or another, and to a large extent 
simultaneously, master of the mint ; groom porter to Charles II., in 
which capacity he was authorized to license and suppress gaming 
houses ; conductor of government lotteries ; patentee of the postal 
service in America; and commissioner of wrecks on the coast of 
Bermuda. 12 If the deputies he chose to conduct all these offices 
were as adequate to their duties as his deputy postmaster-general in 
America, the public service at least would not suffer from his 
pluralism. 

Neale's patent as postmaster-general of the British possessions in 
America is a document of great importance and, if extraneous cir- 
cumstances had not cut its life short, was well fitted to be the charter 
of the American post-office. The patent, which had a duration of 
twenty-one years, authorized Neale to establish a postal system 
throughout the British possessions in America. It prescribes in all 
needful detail the functions of such a service and gives him the 
exclusive privilege of letter conveyance within the territory covered 
by the system. Neale was obligated to see that the post-office was 
carried on efficiently ; in case of dissatisfaction or of his failure to 
set the service on foot within two years the patent was to be de- 
termined. The postage charges were to be based on the rates in 
operation in England, or to be such other rates " as the planters and 
others will freely give for their letters or packets upon the first 
settlement of such office or offices". Letters for England, which 
are excepted from the monopoly, if sent from American post-offices, 
were to be fully prepaid to the first post-office in England, where 
they would be subject to the inland charges in that country. For 
the privileges conferred by the patent Neale was to pay nothing, 
except the nominal sum of six shillings and eight pence, which was 
to be remitted to the Exchequer each year at the Feast of St. 
Michael the Archangel. 

Neale appointed as his deputy Andrew Hamilton, an Edinburgh 
merchant, who after seven years' residence in New Jersey was made 

11 A complete copy of the patent appears as an appendix to The Early History 
of the Colonial Post Office, by Miss Woolley. 

12 Diet, of National Biography, art., " Thomas Neale ", and Publications of 
the Prince Society, VII. 385, note. 



262 William Smith 

governor of that province in 1692. It was on April 4 of that 
year that he was made deputy postmaster-general. Neale was 
fortunate in his selection. Hamilton's course in relation to the 
post-office shows him to have been a man of energy and ability, with 
diplomatic powers of a high order. His success in his dealings 
with the colonial legislatures leaves no doubt on these points. 

The patent furnished him with no warrant for high-handedness 
in carrying out its terms. He was authorized simply " to take such 
rates and sums of money as the planters shall agree to give ". Dur- 
ing the year 1692 Hamilton addressed himself to the legislatures of 
the colonies within the scope of his scheme, setting forth his plan, 
and begging that they might " ascertain and establish such rates and 
terms as should tend to quicker maintenance of mutual correspond- 
ence among the neighboring colonies and plantations, and that trade 
and commerce might be better preserved ". The several legislatures 
looked on the proposition with favor, and Hamilton prepared a bill 
which he submitted for their consideration. This bill provided for 
a general post-office or chief letter-office in the principal town of 
each colony, the postmaster of which was to be appointed by Hamil- 
ton. As the patent conferred a monopoly on the holder, the pro- 
posed bill confirmed this monopoly, imposing considerable penalties 
for its infringement. The postal charges, as well as the privileges 
and appurtenances to be granted to postmasters and mail couriers, 
were settled between Hamilton and each of the legislatures. There 
was some variety in the privileges allowed to postmasters and 
couriers. In Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, the 
mail couriers were conceded free ferriage over the rivers and water 
courses which lay along their routes. In the acts passed by New 
York and New Hampshire there was no mention of ferriage, but in 
each a somewhat curious exemption is made in favor of the post- 
masters, that they should not be subject to excise charges on the 
ale and other liquors which formed the stock-in-trade of their 
business as innkeepers. The postmasters in all the colonies were 
exempted from public services, such as keeping watch and ward 
and sitting on juries. Shipmasters on arriving at a port with letters 
in their care, were enjoined to deliver them to the nearest post- 
office, where they would receive one half-penny for each letter. 13 

The principal postal rates were as follows. On letters from 
Europe or from any country beyond sea, if for Massachusetts, New 

is The several colonial acts were as follows : New York, passed November 
11, 1692 (Laws of Colony of N. Y.,,1. 293) ; Massachusetts, June 9, 1693 (ch. 3, 
1 sess., 1693, Province Lams, I. 115) ; Pennsylvania, May 15, June 1, 1693 
(Duke of York's Laws, p. 224) ; New Hampshire, June 5, 1693 (N. H. Prov. 
Laws, p. 561) ; Connecticut, May 10, 1694 (Pub. Rec. of Conn., 1689-1706, p. 123). 



The Colonial Post- Office 263 

Hampshire, or Pennsylvania, twopence; if for New York, nine 
pence. Letters passing between Boston and Philadelphia, and New 
York and Philadelphia were charged fifteen pence, and four and 
one-half pence respectively. There was a peculiarity in the postage 
on letters passing between Boston and New York. It differed ac- 
cording to the direction the letter was carried. A letter from 
New York to Boston cost twelve pence; while nine pence was the 
charge from Boston to New York. This was one of the con- 
sequences of the separate negotiations between Hamilton and the 
different legislatures. The Massachusetts act fixed the rates on 
letters to Boston, while the New York act settled the charge on 
letters going to New York. From Virginia to Philadelphia, to 
New York, and to Boston, the charges were nine pence, twelve 
pence, and two shillings respectively. All the acts concurred in the 
stipulation that letters on public business should be carried free of 
charge. 

The foregoing is the substance of the acts passed in New York 
and Pennsylvania. Massachusetts went a step further. While as 
willing as the others to concede a monopoly of letter conveyance to 
Hamilton, it thought fit to impose on him the obligation of provid- 
ing a satisfactory service. Accordingly, the Massachusetts legis- 
lature after authorizing Hamilton to establish a post-office in Boston, 
fixing the charges, and conferring on him the exclusive privilege of 
letter-carrying, added a clause binding him to maintain constant 
posts for the carriage of letters to the several places mentioned in 
the act, to deliver letters faithfully and seasonably, and imposed 
a fine of five pounds for each omission. In order to place a check 
on the post-office, the postmaster was required to mark on each 
letter the date of its receipt in his office. New Hampshire followed 
Massachusetts in inserting this clause in its Post-Office Act. 

The four acts were sent to London, and submitted to the king in 
council for sanction. The acts of New York, Pennsylvania, and 
New Hampshire passed council, and became law, while on the 
advice of the governors of the post-office, the Massachusetts act 
was disallowed. 14 The grounds for the discrimination against 
Massachusetts are difficult to understand. The Massachusetts act 
undoubtedly contained departures from the terms of the patent, but 
they were such departures as might be expected where an act is 
drawn up by a person unlearned in the law, who, having the patent 
before him, aims at substantial rather than at literal conformity 
therewith. There can be no question that the drafts presented to 

i* Note to this effect attached to the act (ch. 3. 1 sess., 1693, Province Laws, 
I. 117V 



264 William Smith 

the several assemblies were prepared by one person. Their practical 
identity establishes the fact. There can be equally little doubt that 
the draftsman was Hamilton himself. The governors of the post- 
office, who framed the objections, 15 note first that the patent provides 
that the appointment of Neale's deputy shall, at his request, be made 
by the postmaster-general; whereas the Massachusetts act appears 
to appoint Andrew Hamilton postmaster-general of the colonies 
independent of the postmaster-general of England and not subject 
to the patent. The patent requires Neale to furnish accounts at 
stated intervals to enable the Treasury to establish the profits from 
the enterprise; it also stipulates for the cancellation of the patent 
in certain cases. Both these terms are omitted from the act. In- 
sufficient care was taken in safeguarding the post-office revenue, 
and no provision was made for a successor in case of the removal 
of Hamilton from his position. 

The points to which the post-office drew attention were, as will 
be seen, far from wanting weight, and if they had not been pressed 
against the Massachusetts bill alone, would have excited little com- 
ment. But the Massachusetts general court noted and resented the 
discrimination. When Neale was informed of the disallowance he 
begged the governors of the post-office to prepare a bill which they 
would regard as free from objections, and to lend their efforts to 
have it accepted by Massachusetts. 16 A bill was drawn up and 
Lord Bellomont, the governor of New England, was instructed to 
invite the favorable consideration of the Massachusetts legislature 
to it. 17 The bill was laid before the general court on June 3, 1699, 
and it was ordered to be transcribed and read. 18 Five days later 
it came up for consideration, but it was resolved that the com- 
mittee on the bill should "sit this afternoon", 19 and it appeared in 
the assembly no more. The rejection of the bill, however, was 
of little or no practical consequence. The post-office was too great 
a convenience to be refused, and so it was established and conducted 
as if the bill were in operation, except that it had no monopoly in 
that colony. But the legislature, which was evidently desirous of 
extending in its own way all reasonable aid to Hamilton, passed an 
order in 1703 20 requiring shipmasters to deliver all letters they 
brought with them from over sea, at the post-office of the place of 
their arrival, for which they were to receive a half-penny each from 

is Cat. St. P. Col., Am. and W. L, 1 693-1 696, no. 2234. 

i« Ibid., 1696-1697, no. 505. 

it Ibid., no. 1286. 

18 Prov. Laws of Mass., I. 263. 

is Ibid., p. 420. 

20 Coll., Mass. Hist. Soc, third series, VII. 64. 



The Colonial Post- Office 265 

the postmaster. Massachusetts equally with the other colonies 
made an annual grant to the post-office for the conveyance of its 
public letters. 

The narrative so far deals only with the northern colonies, but 
the proposition for a post-office was submitted to Virginia and 
Maryland as well. These colonies were approached directly by the 
English court, and they were without the advantage of the draft 
bill which was laid before the legislatures of the other colonies and 
of Hamilton's advocacy. In the minutes of council of both govern- 
ments 21 it is recorded that the proposition was presented to them 
by the queen. This fact will account for the way it was treated in 
these colonies. When the scheme was submitted to the house of 
delegates of Maryland on May 13, 169s, 22 it was set aside and noth- 
ing more was heard of it. 

Virginia gave the proposition from the queen attentive considera- 
tion, though the ultimate results were no greater than had been 
obtained in Maryland. There had been since 1658 an arrange- 
ment for the transmission of letters concerning the public affairs 
of the colony. 23 An order was issued that year by the council that 
all letters superscribed for the public service should be conveyed 
from plantation to plantation to the place and person named, and the 
penalty for delaying any such letter was fixed at a hogshead of 
tobacco. No arrangements of a systematic nature were made for 
the conveyance of private letters. When advice of the patent for 
a post-office reached Virginia, the colony showed immediate interest. 
The council, on January 12, 1693, appointed Peter Heyman deputy 
postmaster, 24 and proceeded to draw up a post-office act. This act, 
which became law on April 3, 1693, 25 authorized Neale to establish 
a postal system in the colony at his own expense. He was to set 
up a general post-office at some convenient place and settle one or 
more sub-post-offices in each county. As letters were posted in the 
colony or reached it from abroad, they were to be forthwith dis- 
persed, carried, and delivered in accordance with the directions they 
bore, and all letters for England were to be despatched by the first 
ship bound for any part of that country. The rates of postage were 
to be threepence a single letter within a radius of eighty miles, four 

21 Minutes of council, Virginia, January 12, 1693, Cal. St. P. Col., Am. and 
W. I., 1693-1696, no. 21 ; minutes of council, Maryland, September 24, 1694, 
ibid., no. 1339. 

22 Minutes of council, Maryland, ibid., no. 1816. 

23 Hening's Statutes at Large, I. 436. 

24 Minutes of council, Virginia, Cal. St. P. Col., Am. and W. I., 1693-1696, 
no. 20. 

25 Hening's Statutes at Large, III. 112; Journals of the House of Burgesses, 
1650/60-1603, pp. 444-446. 



266 William Smith 

pence half-penny outside the eighty-mile radius, and eighteen pence 
for each ounce weight. Public letters were to be carried free. No 
provision was made for postage on letters addressed to places 
beyond the limits of the colony, and it was expressly stipulated that 
the act did not confer a monopoly on Neale. 

There is an engaging simplicity in the extent of the colony's re- 
quirements as compared with the limited character of its concessions. 
Neale at his own cost was to establish a postal system, comprising 
a general post-office at a place agreed upon and sub-offices to the 
number desired in each county. Couriers were to be available to 
take letters anywhere within the colony — without postage if on 
public business, at rates fixed by the colony if they were private 
letters — but no person need employ the post-office should other 
more convenient or cheaper mode of conveyance be available. 

This act seems to have been adopted by the legislature before it 
was made aware of Hamilton's connection with the American post- 
office. When the council of Virginia were advised of Hamilton's 
appointment they opened communication with him. The notes of 
the correspondence as they appear in the minutes of council 26 do 
not give much information, but they show that Hamilton's proposi- 
tion as submitted was not found to be acceptable, and as subsequent 
correspondence failed to remove the difficulties, matters remained 
as they were until Neale's patent expired. In 1710 the subject was 
reopened and the governor reported to the Board of Trade that 
he had been expecting a visit from Mr. Hamilton for the last two 
months, for the purpose of opening a post-office and connecting it 
with the other colonies. He foresaw a difficulty owing to the lack 
of a suitable currency, tobacco, which was the only specie, being, 
in the governor's words, " very incommodious to receive small pay- 
ments in and of very uncertain value". 27 

The line of posts established by Hamilton extended from Ports- 
mouth, New Hampshire, to Philadelphia, and mails were carried 
over it weekly each way. 28 The postage collected throughout 
British North America during the four years from 1693 to 1 ^97 was 
£1456-18-3, an average of considerably less than £400 a year. The 
expenses during those years amounted to £3817-6-1 1. 29 The deficit 
fell upon Neale. But the business augmented rapidly, so that by 
the end of the sixth year, the revenue covered all the expenses 

2« Minutes of council, Virginia, May 25, November 10, 1693, October 19, 25, 
1694, May 3, July 25, 1695, Cal. St. P. Col., Am. and W. I., 1693-1696, nos. 371, 
671, 1430, 1454, 1804, 1975. 

27 Spotswood Letters (published by Virginia Hist. Soc), I. 22. 

28 Minutes of council, New Hampshire (N. H. Provincial Papers, 1686-1722, 
p. 100). 

29 Treasury, II. 256 (G. P. O. Record Room). 



The Colonial Post- Office 267 

except Hamilton's salary. 30 In 1699 Hamilton went to England 
and joined Neale in an appeal to the Treasury. 31 They made a 
particular point of the necessity of securing a complete monopoly of 
the over-seas conveyance, and of increasing the postage charges. 
The postmasters-general were favorable to the former proposition, 
but were of opinion that it would be well to weigh carefully before 
adopting the proposal to increase the rates. 32 In the course of the 
discussion, an idea was thrown out by the postmasters-general which 
was eagerly grasped at by Neale and Hamilton. It was that there 
was much reason to doubt whether a post-office in the colonies in 
private hands could ever succeed as it would require all the authority 
of the sovereign to induce the colonial governments to acquiesce in 
the monopoly, which was the indispensable condition to success. 
Neale at once offered to surrender his patent to the government upon 
equitable terms. 33 After some delay the government resumed the 
patent, and carried on the post-office in the colonies under the terms 
of the patent. 34 Its fortunes were no better under the change of 
management. In 1709 there was a deficit of ^200 and much dis- 
content arose among the postmasters, as Queen Anne would not 
allow her losses to be augmented by paying their salaries. 35 

In 171 1 an act was passed by the British Parliament which 
affected profoundly not only the post-office of Great Britain but 
that of the colonies as well. 36 Owing to a variety of causes the 
act of Charles II., under which the post-office was operated, had 
become insufficient. The new act was comprehensive in its scope, 
embracing for the first time the postal arrangements of the colonies. 
The whole system throughout the empire was placed under the 
direction of the postmaster-general of England, who appointed his 
deputies for the different colonies. The act swept away the several 
head offices in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and replaced 
them by one principal office at New York, 87 to which all the others 
were to be subordinate. The charges for the conveyance of letters 
were no longer a matter of negotiation between the postal authori- 
ties and the local legislatures but were fixed by this act of the 
British Parliament. As one of the purposes of the act of 1711 
was to raise money to help defray the expenses of the War of the 

30 Cal. Treasury Papers, 1697—1702, p. 289. 
si Treasury, II. 253 (G P. O. Record Room). 

32 Ibid., p. 256. 

33 Ibid., p. 264. 

34 Treasury, VI. 205 (G. P. 0. Record Room). John Hamilton was appointed 
deputy postmaster-general by the crown in 1707. 

35 Coll., Mass. Hist. Soc, third series, VII. 69. 
38 Statutes of United Kingdom, 9 Anne, ch. 1 0. 

37 New York did not become the centre of the postal system until a recon- 
struction of the department was made in 1772. 



268 William Smith 

Spanish Succession, there was a general augmentation of the rates. 
Thus the charge on a letter from New York to Philadelphia was 
raised from four and one-half pence to nine pence; that on a letter 
from Boston to Philadelphia from fifteen pence to twenty-one pence. 
These charges were for single letters weighing less than one ounce. 
If a letter weighed over one ounce, the charges were fourfold those 
given. 

The act also greatly enhanced the charges on letters passing 
over-seas. In place of the penny or twopence which Americans had 
been accustomed to pay the captains of vessels bringing to them 
the letters which their correspondents had deposited in the bags in 
the London coffee-houses, the post-office now exacted a shilling for 
a letter consisting of a single sheet weighing less than an ounce, 
and four shillings if it weighed as much as an ounce. The captains 
were also impressed with the necessity of co-operating with the 
post-office, by a heavy fine for any captain's failure to hand to the 
postmaster nearest his port of arrival all letters in his charge. 

It is somewhat strange, and is perhaps evidence of a disposition 
on the part of Americans to accept the view enunciated later by 
Franklin that postal charges were not taxes, that only one colony 
made a remonstrance against this great increase in the postage. 
Virginia not only refused to pay the increased rates but countered 
effectively on the attempts of the post-office to enforce the statute. 
There was no postal system in this colony at the time this act came 
into operation. Nor did there seem to be any necessity for one. In 
1699 Hamilton reported on the proposition to extend the colonial 
system southward to Virginia. 38 He gave it as his opinion that the 
desire for communication between the northern colonies and Vir- 
ginia and Maryland was so slight that there would be scarcely one 
hundred letters a year exchanged, while the cost of the service 
would be £500 a year. Practically all the correspondence of these 
southern colonies was with Great Britain and Europe. In the 
autumn of 1717 the time was thought ripe for the inclusion of the 
two southern colonies in the colonial postal system. Postmasters 
were appointed in each colony, couriers conveyed the mails into 
several of the more populous counties, and a fortnightly exchange 
was arranged between Williamsburg and Philadelphia. This was 
satisfactory until the people learned what the charges were and what 
the monopoly of the post-office meant. Then there was a vigorous 
clamor of protest. 89 Parliament, they declared, could levy no tax 

38 Treasury, II. 253 (G. P. O. Record Room). 

3« Governor Spotswood to the Board of Trade, June 24, 171 8. Va. Hist. 
Coll., new series, II. 280. 



The Colonial Post- Office 269 

upon them but with the assent of their assembly ; and, besides, they 
maintained that their letters were exempt from the monopoly of the 
postmaster-general, because they nearly all, in one way or other, 
related to trade. This was putting an unwarrantably broad in- 
terpretation on an exemption, which appears in all post-office acts, 
in favor of letters relating to goods which the letters accompany 
on the vessels. It has always been the practice to allow ship- 
masters, carrying a consignment of goods, to deliver the invoice to 
the consignee with the goods, in order that the transaction might 
be completed with convenience. But the scope of the exemption is 
clearly defined and has never been allowed to include ordinary busi- 
ness letters not accompanying merchandise. 

The Virginians however did not leave their case to the uncertain 
chances of a legal or constitutional argument. They set about 
nullifying the post-office act by an effective counter measure. The 
legislature brought in a bill which, while acknowledging the authority 
of the post-office act, imposed on postmasters certain conditions 
which it was impossible to fulfill and attached extravagant penalties 
for the infraction of those conditions. The postmasters were to be 
fined five pounds for every letter which they demanded from a 
shipmaster and which the statute exempted from the postmaster- 
general's exclusive privilege. Now every ship's letter-bag would 
certainly contain many letters relating to goods on board the ship, 
as well as many which had nothing to do with goods. But how 
was the postmaster to distinguish the letters he might rightfully 
claim for the post-office from those which came within the exemp- 
tion? With a penalty of five pounds hovering over him for every 
mistake in judgment his position would be unenviable. Another 
clause in the bill contained a schedule so exacting that observance of 
it would have been impossible. In case of failure, which would 
frequently have been unavoidable, the bill provided a fine of twenty 
shillings for every letter delayed. 40 The bill was disallowed by the 
governor but the legislature achieved its purpose, as the deputy 
postmaster-general relinquished his attempt to establish a post-office 
in the colony. It was not until 1732, when the governor, Alexander 
Spotswood, became deputy postmaster-general, that Virginia was 
included in the American postal system. 

With the exception of this episode, the period of forty years 
succeeding the act of 171 1 produced little that is noteworthy. In 
1 72 1 a change was made in the relations between the postmaster- 
general and the post-office in America, in virtue of which the former 

*o Journal of the House of Burgesses, May, 1718, passim. 



270 William Smith 

was relieved of all expense for the maintenance of the American 
service. On the withdrawal of the deputy postmaster-general, John 
Hamilton, who was a son of the founder of the American post- 
office, there were arrears of salary due him amounting to £355. In 
recommending Hamilton's claim for this amount to the Treasury, 
the postmaster-general stated that the post-office in America had 
been put on such a footing that if it produced no profit it would no 
longer be a charge on the revenue. 41 

The line of undistinguished administrators of the post-office in 
America came to an end in 1753 when Benjamin Franklin was 
made deputy postmaster-general jointly with William Hunter of 
Virginia. Besides being a man of pre-eminent practical ability, 
Franklin had had a large experience in post-office affairs. 42 He 
had been postmaster of Philadelphia for sixteen years before his 
appointment to the deputyship, and for some time before had acted 
as controller for the whole postal service. The post-office at this 
time offered a fine field for Franklin's administrative ability. The 
service had been steadily declining for some years. It took six 
weeks to make the trip from Philadelphia to Boston and back, and 
during the three winter months the trips were made but once a fort- 
night. Franklin and his associate made the service weekly through- 
out the year, and had the time reduced by one-half. 48 There were 
a number of other improvements introduced. For a time the 
financial results offered little encouragement. In 1757, when the 
outlay reached its highest point and the public response to these 
efforts to accommodate them was still feeble, the post-office was 
over £900 in debt to the deputy postmasters-general. But the public 
did not remain unappreciative. Three years later this debt was 
wiped out and replaced by a surplus of £278. In 1764 the surplus 
reached £494, and this sum was transmitted to the general post- 
office in London. The receipt of this first remittance gave great 
satisfaction to the postmaster-general. For a generation past the 
post-office in America had been nearly forgotten. It had cost the 
Treasury nothing since 1721, and it had been allowed to plod along 
unregarded. Opposite the entry of the receipt in the Treasury 
Book are the words, " This is the first remittance ever made of its 
kind." 44 Thereafter the remittance from the North American post- 
41 August 10, 1722. Treasury, VI. 206-207 (G. P. O. Record Room). 

42 Franklin was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, and deputy post- 
master-general in succession to Colonel Spotswood. He was but little in America 
during his incumbency as deputy postmaster-general. He resided in London as 
agent for his province from June, 1757, until November, 1762, and from Novem- 
ber, 1764, until his dismissal. 

43 " The Ledger-Book of Benjamin Franklin ", in the Boston Public Library. 
4*Treasury Letter-Book, 1760-1761, p. 96 (G. P. O. Record Room). 



The Colonial Post- Office 271 

office became an annual occurrence. In his Autobiography Franklin 
observes with pride that at the time of his dismissal the American 
office yielded a revenue three times that from Ireland. 45 

Franklin's success, judged by reference either to the immediate 
past of the American service or to the contemporary British service, 
was remarkable. He showed an early grasp of the truth that 
monopoly alone does not assure prosperity, and that in order to 
gain business it was essential to make his service attractive to the 
public. For the first three years of his administration, the total 
revenue was ^938-16-10; the revenue for 1757 alone was £1151, and 
this was about the normal revenue for some time. His method was 
the old simple one, familiar to all men of business. As already 
stated, he found on entering on his office that it took six weeks for a 
letter and its answer to pass between Boston and Philadelphia. He 
at once reduced this time by one-half. But this was not enough. 
At the beginning of 1764 the post-riders between New York and 
Philadelphia made three trips each way weekly, and at such a rate 
of speed that a letter could be sent from one place to the other and 
the answer received the day following. 46 In reporting this achieve- 
ment Franklin stated that the mails travelled by night as well as by 
day, which had never before been done in America. He planned to 
have trips of equal speed made between New York and Boston in 
the spring of that year, and the time for letter and reply between 
the two places reduced from a fortnight to four days. When his 
arrangements were completed a letter and reply might pass between 
Boston and Philadelphia in six days. 

It was during this period that the agitation which had been 
going on upon both sides of the Atlantic for regular packets devoted 
exclusively to the conveyance of mails was crowned with success. 
As the troubles which culminated in the Seven Years' War were 
approaching a head, an appeal was made to the British govern- 
ment by Governors Shirley of Massachusetts, De Lancey of New 
York, Dinwiddie of Virginia, and Lawrence of Nova Scotia, for 
a more regular means of communication between the mother-country 
and the colonies, so that help might be obtained, if required. 47 The 
appeal was vigorously supported by the Board of Trade, but the 
Treasury could not be induced to undertake the expenditure until 
their eyes were opened by the defeat of Braddock at Fort du 
Quesne. They were then quite in a mood to approve of a further 

45 Works of Benjamin Franklin (Federal ed.), I. 256. 

46 Franklin to Todd, January 16, 1764. Smyth, Life and Writings of Ben- 
jamin Franklin, IV. 215. 

47 Public Record Office, C. O. 5. 



272 William Smith 

representation of the Board of Trade made on September 18, 1755, 48 
and the postmaster-general was directed that a line of packet-boats 
should make monthly trips between Falmouth and New York. The 
vessels employed were of two hundred tons burden, and carried 
thirty men. The conveyance of merchandise was forbidden. The 
service was a most expensive one and, when peace was concluded 
in 1762, the question of its continuance was at once discussed. 
During the seven years of its course, the New York service cost 
£62,603, while its revenue in postage was only £12,458. The service 
was popular, however, and as the efforts of the postmaster-general 
to lower the cost had been successful and hopes were entertained 
that the service would be self-sustaining before very long, the 
Treasury sanctioned the amended terms. 49 

So far as its connections extended, this service was very satis- 
factory. All the services on the land routes north of Virginia were 
made subsidiary to the transatlantic service, and all the northern 
colonies had fairly close communication with the mother-country. 
But the southern colonies derived little or no benefit from the 
packets. To remedy this state of things an entire rearrangement 
of the southern service was made in 1764. 50 These colonies were 
withdrawn from the northern service altogether and with the 
Bahama Islands were erected into a distinct postal division with 
headquarters at Charleston. The packets from Falmouth, after 
calling at the West Indies, extended their voyages to Pensacola, 
Fort St. Augustine, and Charleston, before returning home. As 
this was found to be too long a route, it was resolved to break up 
the connection between the mainland and the West Indies, and to 
have separate monthly packets between Falmouth and Charleston. 
To secure the greatest measure of advantage from this service a 
courier was despatched to Savannah and St. Augustine with the 
mails as soon as they arrived at Charleston from England. 

There were thus at the end of British rule in the American 
colonies three lines of sailing packets carrying mails between Eng- 
land and those colonies — one to New York, another to Charleston, 
and the third to the West Indies. There was still however a defect 
in the arrangements. They failed to provide connections between 

48 Public Record Office, C. O. Bundle 7. 

*s> Treasury, vol. VIII. (G. P. O. Record Room). 

50 The first deputy postmaster-general for the southern division was Benja- 
min Barons, who was appointed December 19, 1764. Orders of the Board, II. 
126 (G. P. O. Record Room). He resigned on August 26, 1766, and was suc- 
ceeded by Peter Delancy. The latter was killed in a duel with Dr. John Hale, in 
August, 1 77 1, and George Roupell was appointed in his stead. The last-named 
retained office until displaced at the Revolution. Orders of the Board, 1 737-177°, 
II. 211 b. 



The Colonial Post- Office 273 

the several colonial systems except through the mother-country. A 
letter from New York to Charleston or to the West Indies had to go 
to London on its way to its destination. To connect the two systems 
in the mainland, a courier travelled from Charleston to Suffolk, 
Virginia, where he met the courier from New York. The gap 
between the West Indian and continental services was filled by small 
forty-five ton vessels running from Jamaica to Pensacola, and 
Charleston. 51 

A complete survey of the postal service of the colonies in 1774 
can be extracted from the Journal 62 of the trip of inspection made 
by Hugh Finlay in that year. Finlay, who had been postmaster of 
Quebec since 1763, had just been promoted to the general surveyor- 
ship of the northern district. He travelled from Falmouth (now 
Portland) in the north, to Savannah in the south, inspected all the 
post-offices, and received communications of all kinds in the course 
of his journey. From this Journal it appears that there was only 
one route in the country — that between New York and Phila- 
delphia — over which mails were carried as frequently as three times 
a week. From New York northward to Boston, and thence to 
Portland, the courier travelled twice weekly each way. Southward 
from Philadelphia to Suffolk, North Carolina, there was a weekly 
courier. 

In passing from this northern district, which covered the full 
extent of Franklin's jurisdiction, to the southern district, which 
was under the control of another deputy postmaster-general, one is 
struck with the enormous difference between them. Although the 
service throughout the northern district in no way corresponds with 
what the greatly improved facilities make possible and even neces- 
sary to-day, it still afforded a basis on which improvements would 
naturally be made. This could not be said of the service in the 
south. From Suffolk to Charleston, there was a post-road four 
hundred and thirty-three miles in length. The couriers visited, on 
the way, the post-towns of Edenton, Bath, New Bern, Wilmington, 
Brunswick, and Georgetown. They left each end of the route once 
a fortnight, and took forty-three days to make the through journey. 
Of these forty-three days, twenty-seven were occupied in travel, 
while during the remaining sixteen the mails lay at connecting points 
on the route. The district south of Charleston as far as Savannah 
and St. Augustine had regular mails only once a month, the courier 
leaving Charleston on the arrival of the packet from England. 

si Treasury, vol. II. (G. P. O. Record Room). 

52 Journal kept by Hugh Finlay, Surveyor of the Post Roads on the Con- 
tinent of North America, i 773-1774 (published by Frank H. Norton, Brooklyn, 
1867). 

AM. HIST. REV., VOL. XXI. — 18. 



274 William Smith 

While Finlay was in the south changes were taking place affect- 
ing not only his personal fortunes but the whole colonial postal 
system. Before he reached New York on his return, Franklin had 
been dismissed for his connection with the disclosure of the 
Hutchinson correspondence and Finlay had been appointed to suc- 
ceed him. 53 Franklin was thus set free to place his ability and 
experience at the service of the colonials in the organization of their 
postal system. And steps were already being taken towards the 
establishment of such a system. In March, 1774, the committee of 
correspondence in Boston wrote to the committee in Salem sug- 
gesting that independent postal arrangements be set up, and intro- 
ducing William Goddard as a suitable man for such an under- 
taking. 54 Goddard was the son of the postmaster of New London, 
and had himself been postmaster of Providence for a period of two 
years. His mission to Salem was successful, as the committee of 
that place, replying a few days later to the committee in Boston, 
declared that the act of the British Parliament establishing a post- 
office in America was dangerous in principle and demanded per- 
emptory opposition. Goddard had a plan for an independent 
American post-office 55 which with the encouragement he received 
at Boston and Salem, he laid before the committees of correspond- 
ence in all the colonies. His proposition was that the colonial post- 
office should be established and maintained by subscription and that 
its control should be vested in a committee to be appointed annually 
by the subscribers. The committee should appoint postmasters and 
post-riders and fix the rates of postage. The immediate manage- 
ment was to be under the direction of a postmaster-general to be 
selected by ballot, who should hold his office by a yearly tenure. 

But Goddard was not permitted to bring his plan into execution. 
In September, 1774, the delegates of the colonies assembled in 
congress at Philadelphia, and by degrees took upon themselves all 
the functions of government. The question of providing for the 
speedy and secure conveyance of intelligence was submitted to the 
congress on May 29 following, 56 and a committee, of which Frank- 
lin was the leading member, was directed to make a report. On 
July 26," with the report of the committee before it, the congress 
resolved to appoint a postmaster-general for the united colonies, 
whose headquarters should be at Philadelphia, and who was em- 

53 Orders of the Board, January 31, 1774. 

5* March 21, 1774. Pickering Papers, manuscript, in possession of the Mass. 
Hist. Soc, XXXIX. 38. 

55 April 4 or 20, 1774. Ibid., XXXIII. 75, 86. 
5« Journals of the Continental Congress, II. 71. 
57 Ibid., pp. 208-209. 



The Colonial Post- Office 275 

powered to appoint a secretary and as many postmasters as he con- 
sidered proper. A line of posts should be established from Fal- 
mouth (Portland) to Savannah, with as many cross-posts as the 
postmaster-general thought desirable. 

Goddard was a candidate for the position of postmaster-general, 
but Franklin was chosen. He then sought the secretaryship but 
disappointment again awaited him. Franklin selected his son-in- 
law, Bache, for the place. In recognition however of his services 
in organizing the colonial post-office, he was appointed surveyor of 
the posts. 58 

Congress, after establishing the colonial post-office, debated the 
question of suppressing the existing or imperial postal system. 59 
Much was said on both sides, but the question was settling itself 
more effectually in another fashion. As early as March, 1775, the 
postmaster-general in London notified his deputies in America that 
all that was to be expected of them was that they should act with 
discretion to the best of their judgment. 80 He ceased to give posi- 
tive directions. Finlay, who at some personal risk had managed to 
get to New York, reported that the post-office was doing but little 
business as the rebels were opening and rifling the mails and were 
notifying the public that it was unconstitutional to make use of the 
king's post-office. Finlay foresaw that the post-office could not 
long continue, and he proposed that the work of distributing the 
mails should be done on one of the war vessels in New York 
harbor. 61 At last, on Christmas Day, 1775, the post-office at New 
York gave notice 62 that on account of the interruptions to the postal 
service in several parts of the country, the inland service would 
cease from that date, and thus was closed the royal post-office in the 
colonies. 

William Smith. 

5 8 Am. Archives, fourth series, VI. 1012. 

59 Journals of the Continental Congress, III. 488. 

«o American Letter-Book, 1773-1783, P- 62 (G. P. O. Record Room). 
«i Public Record Office, C. O. 5 : 135. 
82 Am. Arch., fourth series, IV. 453.